By Ann Thuy Nguyen, AsAmNews Intern
Nearly 150 years ago in Promontory Point, Utah, employees from the Central Pacific Railroad and Union Pacific Railroad companies gathered around two locomotives to celebrate the completion of the first transcontinental railroad. The photograph taken on that May 10, 1869 day has become iconic in U.S. history, but fails to represent the overwhelming majority of the railway’s workforce, the thousands of laborers brought from China.
Wilson Lee, the great-great-grandson of a transcontinental railroad worker, is determined to include Chinese laborers in the railroad’s 150th anniversary in 2019. He serves as co-founder of the Boston-based Chinese American Heritage Foundation (CAHF), a nonprofit “dedicated to celebrating the rich history of Chinese Americans’ contributions to the American spirit” according to its website.
Lee proposed a float for the 2019 Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, California to commemorate the Chinese and ethnic immigrant laborers’ achievements and hardships.
“We wanted to celebrate the contributions of not just the Chinese immigrants, but all immigrants responsible for the building of America,” he said in a phone interview with AsAmNews. “Not just the ones from 150 years ago, but also the current immigrants today.”
Even though CAHF had zero funding and sponsors when the Rose committee accepted the organization’s application to showcase a float—projected to cost $300,000—Lee did not hesitate to pay the $5500 deposit for the event.
He asked Esther Zee Lee, board chair and president of CAHF—and his wife—to send in the check. She asked if he was sure, and he responded that he was as determined as the day he had asked her to marry him.
Thanks to community partnerships and a primary sponsorship from Union Pacific, CAHF will have the longest float on the 5.5-mile route New Year’s Day 2019.
The float will also be the first Rose Parade float to be sponsored by a Chinese American nonprofit organization.
The 95-foot-long “Harmony through Union” float will feature a one-to-one scale replica of the two train engines from the iconic photograph and large-scaled hands holding a hammer and the iconic golden spike.
What differentiates the “Harmony through Union” and the historic moment is it includes the faces of Chinese people.
Joining CAHF on the float will be retired Major General William (Bill) S. Chen, a descendant of a Chinese railroad worker and the son of a Chinese American veteran of World War II.
Chen, who is also the first Chinese American to achieve 2-star rank in the U.S. Army, is honored to be a part of a float that commemorates the Chinese American railroad workers.
The contributions that Chinese Americans and immigrants like Chen and his family have made to the United States’ economic and political infrastructure have not been fully told.
“For so long, all of my life and for many generations, Chinese Americans and Asian Americans are seen as foreigners. And that we’re visitors or newcomers, but certainly not truly an American,” said Rep. Karen Kwan, the first Chinese American to be elected to the Utah State House of Representatives.
“The thing is that the Chinese have been involved, but they’ve been overlooked like they’re not a true part of American history.” Kwan adds, “All of a sudden, to me, this [float] reminds me of what it’s like to be a part of America and not pushed aside as an other.”
Kwan, who will ride the float with her youngest daughter, also views this float as something larger than oneself—“an integration of American traditions.”
“[It’s] an integration that doesn’t say we now belong, but we have been here since the beginning, and we have built America, ” says Kwan to AsAmNews.
Following the float’s debut in the Rose Parade, CAHF will continue to honor the 150th-anniversary of the transcontinental railroad with the “Rebuild America” educational initiative—raising funding to offer free books to various young students on stories about early Chinese pioneers in the United States.
“We want young people to know their stories and those of their ancestors,” says Lee. At the end of the conversation with Wilson Lee, he wanted to emphasize that this float is not for a single audience.
“This is not just a Chinese American float, this is an Asian American float, and this is an immigrant float. He says, “This is America’s float.”
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